Paris in Cambodia

There was a point where she was sure someone had recognized her. She was on the streets of Siem Reap, near a line of outdoor restaurants, their proprietors cooking over woks fired by smoldering portable stoves for tourists sitting in plastic chairs around wooden tables. A small boy was pestering her to buy postcards — ten for a dollar, he told her. “Where are you from?” he asked. “I can name all the capitols of the states. You buy my postcards if I tell you the capitol of your state? Alabama, Montgomery. Alaska, Juneau. Arizona, Phoenix. Arkansas, Little Rock. …”

There were Chinese tourists in the street restaurants mostly, but there were lots of white people, too. Backpacker types: tall boys with blonde beards, dreadlocks or ponytails, and long shorts; girls with head scarves, long cotton skirts, and sandals. They saw her. Or, did she just think they saw her? They didn’t seem to recognize her. They looked dirty. Why did they look so dirty? Two weeks in Asia, she had at least washed every day.

She never had been more hungry in her life until she came to Asia. She never had eaten so much.The little boy was still hawking his postcards. He was dirty, too. She was used to being pestered. One little boy was nothing to her. She crossed the street and headed down a pedestrian alley of tourist restaurants. There was a blind man with no legs sitting in the middle of the street playing something resembling a violin, while some little girls knelt behind him. The tourists would look out at him, but then go back to their meals and conversations; some left money as they walked by, but not very many did. Men with menus stepped into the street to tout their eateries, try to guide people inside. So many foreigners here. In Laos, she had been the only one practically. There, she was an oddity, but now she felt exposed. She remembered what the man from the plane told her: Don’t attract attention. Don’t be recognized.

Sixteen hours on a bus this day, she was dead tired and hungry. She never had been more hungry in her life until she came to Asia. She never had eaten so much. Probably getting fat, she thought. Tomorrow she will pay a man from the guesthouse to take her to the temples. But first, she will buy a scarf from the market like the hippie girls wear. For now, though, she felt too vulnerable. A tuk-tuk driver called out to her. Then another, and another. The little boy was still pestering her. She turned a corner at the next street, and a young local man jumped into her path. “Do you want massage?” A line of places offering massages. Too many tourists, too many people. This was where she came to hide.

In the market the vendors were closing down. The women dressed in pajamas like little girls were pulling down tin shutters. But the tiny, fluorescent-lit eateries along one side were teeming with locals. She sat down at a table by herself and ordered rice and some vegetables. When the little boy came alongside, she paid him two dollars for the postcards to make him go away.


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